There is a certain beauty in man-made things. In some ways, that beauty cannot match the extant world. In others, that beauty is unparalleled because it exhibits the best qualities man and woman are able to achieve with their own hands.
Art and Architecture are oft-cited examples, and we recognize this, conveying social and financial reward upon those creations that best exhibit the creative spirit–or even boundless will–of humanity.
There is a simpler, yet more pervasive proof in the beauty of man-made things: the beauty of comfort and familiarity. The beauty in feeling like you belong, no matter where you may find yourself. This beauty is all the more meaningful to us because it speaks to the deep-seated social needs that all of us possess. It often feels less essential because it is so subtle, and also because we’re only acutely aware of this need when it is not being met.
When unfamiliarity encroaches, we cling to any shred of familiarity like an anchor–our only hope from being swept away by the waves of confusion and insecurity.
Imagine yourself in a foreign airport or the transit station of an unfamiliar city for the first time. Now suppose that you just stepped off your train or plane and you have a limited amount of time to get from your gate to the next one. Where do you go? How do you find information? What thoughts and emotions do you experience at even the mention of such a task?
If you have a first-hand memory of such a place and experience, recalling that memory might even evoke a physical response: Dilated pupils; an increased heart-rate; clammy hands; shortness of breath. Stress. Anxiety.
The unfamiliarity of it all evokes a need for familiarity, so what do you do? If you are traveling with co-workers, friends or loved-ones, your stress is lessened, but the task remains. What did you do?
You look for familiarity; for anchoring clues. Signs, numbers, letters, text. Anything to help you find your way. A sign with the text “A Gates” and an arrow leading in a specific direction may provide instant relief. A bank of monitors might do the same. Perhaps all you require is the appearance of a male or female block figure, pointing to the closest restroom. Whatever it may be, you would look for, and gravitate to, anything familiar that helps you accomplish the most important task at hand. And once found, those familiar things would anchor you, and provide comfort.
There is beauty in this! When numbers and letters and symbols can anchor us to a deeper reality and point us home, there is sublime beauty that almost nothing else can match.
This, then, is Metro: creating experiences that anchor us to reality, even in the face of the unfamiliar. Further, these experiences do more than simply try to transpose and replicate our comfort from one medium to another. I don’t need the subway signs in Chicago to look exactly like those in Manhattan or Munich. As long as there is just enough present to evoke familiarity, I am comfortable. Better still, I don’t need the sign for the men’s restroom in Beijing to be a life-like photograph of a six-foot tall white male. To loosely paraphrase Scott McCloud in “Understanding Comics,” iconography is powerful not just because it is abstract, but because its abstract nature makes it identifiable, and we connect best with that which we identify. A stick figure is sufficient because I see myself in it, and that provides familiarity and comfort.
In a time when Metro is increasingly being used to instruct developers to find and delete every ‘border-radius’ rule in their CSS, or to follow a design checklist, it’s important that we remember that Metro–like every single great design idea conceived since the dawn of humanity–is about building something that is beautiful for others. It is about delivering something that anchors them in reality and helps them find their way, and it’s about creating something that is beautiful because it’s useful and comfortable.
You can’t code your way to Metro, except perhaps by accident. Even then, what you create will likely seem more artificial than “digitally authentic.”
You can’t even design your way to Metro, and no tutorial, checklist, or book will deliver a “Metro experience” simply because you added colorful tiles, fancy page flip effects or a digital representation of a tabletop calendar.
All software is and has always been about the beneficiary of our work, and Metro is no different. Never has there been a checklist or process to unlock what is most beneficial for every case, because the real value lies in the process of discovery.
Once you discover what the human being using your application needs, it is up to you to discover how to best meet that need. Metro is about placing comfort and familiarity on an even footing with utility–and I am grateful for its popularity for that reason, alone–but it is only when armed with discovery that one can truly build “Metro” experiences.
So, learn Metro. Read the design guides and use the checklists. Watch the videos and think more like a designer, no matter what you are building. Before any of that, though, think about comfort and familiarity, and how your application or site can deliver those basic, human needs better than any other.
Because that’s what Metro really means.
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